Signs of the times: in Albany Park, a dispute over "Seoul Drive" and "Korea Town" | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Signs of the times: in Albany Park, a dispute over "Seoul Drive" and "Korea Town"

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Perhaps years from now social scientists will piece together a grand new theory about ethnicity by studying the strange and bitter battle over Seoul Drive. It all started in December, when the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance designating the stretch of Lawrence Avenue from Western to Pulaski as Seoul Drive. In a move they later rescinded, the council also named a larger portion of the surrounding neighborhood Korea Town. Both were commemorative designations (the street's official name is unchanged) to honor the Korean merchants who have helped revitalize the local business strip.

While Korean merchants have expressed appreciation, many non-Korean residents are furious. Caught in the middle are the three sponsoring aldermen: Patrick O'Connor, Anthony Laurino, and Richard Mell, none of whom would return phone calls. Apparently they never realized the designations would spark such fury in Albany Park, a community long known for its ethnic diversity.

"I don't see why anyone would object," says Paul Park, president of the Lawrence Avenue Korean Business Association and a local real estate agent. "In America every nationality wants to have a positive attitude. You have streets honoring Pakistanis, Indians, Croatians, and Jews--why not us?"

Opponents counter that the designation is antagonistic to non-Koreans. "I have nothing against Koreans; I would feel the same way if they wanted to call it Greek Town or Little Italy," says Elaine Tuennerman, leader of the recently formed Citizens for a Democratic & Diverse Albany Park. "They're singling out one group to identify a very diverse community. Does this mean that people like myself or my Latino, Arab, and African American neighbors do not have an equal voice?"

The dispute underscores some of the demographic changes in Albany Park. Roughly bounded on the north and south by Foster and Montrose and on the west and east by Cicero and the Chicago River, Albany Park has traditionally been a stepping-stone community--a neighborhood in which immigrants settle before they accumulate enough money to move out of the city.

In the 1940s and '50s it was predominantly Jewish. But by the 1970s most of the Jews had left, and no single ethnic group had emerged as the predominant one. Many shops on Lawrence are Korean-owned, but a lot of the merchants live in other neighborhoods or in the suburbs. According to the 1990 census, Albany Park is roughly 40 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent Asian (the census does not distinguish between different Asian nationalities, so it's not known how many of the Asians are Korean).

Of all the nationalities that live or work in the area, the Korean merchants may be the most organized. In the last few years they have held several political forums that have attracted politicians citywide, including Mell. Park says that it was at one of these forums, in March 1992, that the idea of Seoul Drive first emerged. "Someone asked the politicians: 'How come there is no sign on Lawrence indicating the efforts of Korean immigrants?'" he says. "All the candidates said, 'We did not realize that; surely you deserve one.'"

A few months later Mell made good on the promise. "We had forgotten about this thing until Alderman Mell called," says Park. "He said he had discussed it with aldermen Laurino and O'Connor, and he said they were ready to introduce the Seoul Drive and Korea Town ordinances. We really appreciated that."

On the surface it seems surprising that Mell would take a lead role, since the area is split between O'Connor's 40th and Laurino's 39th wards. But under the new ward map, which officially goes into effect after the 1995 aldermanic elections, some of the area would be part of Mell's 33rd Ward.

"Mell probably saw this as a way to win over the Korean merchants," says one veteran area activist who, like many local observers, asked not to be identified. "The Korean merchants are learning about Chicago politics. They are learning to make contributions and politicians are starting to take notice. There's nothing wrong with that."

No public hearing was held on the proposals, probably because the aldermen figured none was needed. Aldermen are constantly passing street designations to honor this or that ethnic group. For instance, in West Rogers Park there is one stretch of Devon Avenue named for Mahatma Gandhi and another for Golda Meir. Besides, almost everyone agrees that Albany Park has benefited from its Korean merchants. In the mid-1970s, before the great influx of Korean immigrants, about 30 percent of the Lawrence Avenue business strip was vacant, according to some studies and published reports.

"The Korean merchants came in and renovated this street," says Park. "We've tripled the tax revenue. Besides, we hope by putting up the signs we can get people to think of this as a special area, like Chinatown. Then we can get tourists to come here, which means more jobs and tax revenue."

Word of the designations did not filter back to the larger community until early this year. "Our immediate reaction was anger at the aldermen--we wanted to know why they hadn't notified us," says Don Hodgkinson, president of the North River Commission, the largest community group in the area. "Part of the issue is process. We are used to things being done democratically around here. It was outrageous that Mell would take the lead because he isn't even alderman here yet."

Leaders of the North River Commission privately met with Korean leaders to hammer out some sort of compromise. "We wanted to make a designation that would promote a positive attitude of Koreans without offending the 95 percent of the population that's not Korean," says Hodgkinson. "After some discussion the Korean merchants said 'Forget it. We'll put the signs up and then talk about it afterward.'"

The merchants say their opponents have blown the issue out of proportion. "We don't want to say this area is only for Koreans," says Park. "Next door to me is a Yugoslavian grocery store. I go there all the time; I hope they stay there. This is about coexisting. Some people said we had to drop the name or there would be a riot. That's ridiculous. Most people support this. It's only a few who are trying to make trouble."

But as word of Seoul Drive spread dozens of residents began barraging Mell, O'Connor, and Laurino with calls. "This was like a slap in the face--it goes to the heart and soul of my community," says Tuennerman. "I moved here because I recognize it as a diverse community. And now they want to call it Korea Town? That makes no sense. It's divisive. I don't agree with those other street names, but at least they are named for people, not ethnic groups. Calling Lawrence Seoul Drive is smashing the fragile balance. We're establishing chunks of territory by race. What's next: Bosnia?"

Tuennerman organized a meeting for April 5 to discuss the matter, and roughly 60 residents attended. "Mell showed up and it got pretty stormy," she says. "People kept asking him why he hadn't consulted the community, and Mell said that normally he would but because of redistricting he didn't have his organization in place around here. I said, "Why didn't you hold off until you got input?' He admitted that he made a mistake, but that was it."

However, O'Connor and Laurino began to buckle under the pressure. With Mell's backing, they had the council rescind the Korea Town designation and the Seoul Drive designation was amended so that it would only run from the Chicago River to Central Park. (In other words, as much as possible the designation was limited to the area that would become Mell's ward.) The city also canceled an April 28 sign-unveiling ceremony. "We don't know when or if the signs will be hung," says one city official. "The last thing we need is to get in the middle of this thing. The aldermen designate street names, all we do is hang the signs."

In mid-April representatives of 17 local groups gathered to tackle the touchy task of writing a letter that would implore the aldermen to completely rescind the Seoul Drive ordinance without offending the Korean merchants. "Residents and business people alike expressed admiration for the Koreans, but felt that the community input process was ignored, and that other groups were excluded by the Aldermen," the letter said. "After the books are wiped clean, we will engage in our usual process of inclusively discussing what, if any, special designations would be in our community's best interest. The word community to us includes men and women of all races and ethnicity and, specifically, includes all our new Korean neighbors and merchants."

The letter, however, has won few Korean converts. "At first, the designation was not important to me," says a local Korean activist. "Then I think: there are Koreans who own stores on Devon; they don't complain about working on 'Gandhi Drive.' It's not fair to make a big deal about Seoul Drive. With so many non-Koreans opposing them, I feel compelled to support the signs."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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